Oct 24 2013
Rising numbers of young people are choosing to go to university, with women more likely to study for a degree than men, new figures show.
More than a third (38%) of those who were 18 in 2011/12 went into higher education, up from three in 10 (30%) of those who were the same age in 1998/99, according to data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
The data looks at the proportion of school leavers going on to university, taking into account their sex, background and home town, from the late 1990s up until 2011/12.
The findings show a 26% increase over this period in the proportion of 18-year-olds continuing their education beyond A-levels and equivalent qualifications, with most of the rise happening from the mid-2000s onwards.
But the figures also suggest that a teenager's chances of going to university still depend heavily on where they live, their background and whether they are male or female.
HEFCE's report says that by 2011/12, women were, on average, over a fifth (22%) more likely to attend university by age 19 than men.
And in areas of the country where few students go into higher education, women were over a third (35%) more likely to go than their male peers.
The gap between the numbers of rich and poor pupils going to university "remains large", the report warns.
In the late 1990s, teenagers living in areas of England where high numbers of students went into higher education were four times more likely to study for a degree than those living in areas where few people chose to continue their education.
By 2011/12 this had narrowed with those living in "high-participation" areas three times more likely to go to university than those in areas of "low-participation".
But the report adds: "Young people in the most disadvantaged areas would need to treble their participation rate in order to match the rate of those from the most advantaged areas."
Professor Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education, said he was pleased to see "sustained progress" in the numbers of disadvantaged students going to university.
But he added: "Young people from the most advantaged neighbourhoods in England are still three times more likely to go to higher education than the most disadvantaged young people. Meanwhile, there has been a 40% decline in part-time study over recent years, which is worrying because part-time students are more likely to come from groups that are currently under-represented in higher education.
"Addressing these complex issues requires universities, colleges and schools to work together, engaging across the learner's whole lifecycle. This means encouraging children from an early age to think about higher education as an option, supporting teenagers as they make key decisions, and working with employers to reach out to potential mature students. It's also vital that policy is joined up across all education sectors."
18-year-olds in London are the most likely to go to university, with the gap between the proportions of teenagers in the capital and those in the rest of the country widening, the study shows.
By 2011/12 youngsters in London were over a third (36%) more likely to go into higher education than those who were the same age in the late 1990s, and were around 43% more likely to go than young people living in the North East, the region where teenagers are the least likely to continue their education beyond A-levels.
The findings show that the areas where youngsters are the least likely to go to university tend to be along the coast, in rural parts of the South West, the East Midlands and the East of England as well as in former industrial towns in the Midlands and the North of England.
The figures show that in 2011/12, Wimbledon in south west London has the highest university participation rate among young people at 68%, followed by Harrow East in north west London at 67%.
At the other end of the scale, Nottingham North had the lowest participation rate at 16%, followed by Bristol South at 18%.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "It is good that the participation rate has risen for both men and women and that the gap between these groups has narrowed in recent years. However, low participation by young men is becoming an urgent concern and it is also worth remembering that women's employment prospects and salaries after they graduate still lag behind men's.
"The progress that has been made since the late nineties demonstrates the importance of universities' outreach work with schools and colleges and its effectiveness in getting young people interested in going to university and helping them achieve the qualifications to get a place. Universities use a high proportion of their fee income to support outreach. This is expensive, long-term work and for it continue to be effective it needs to be highly targeted and properly funded."
Libby Hackett, chief executive of University Alliance, said: "This is further evidence that the increase in fees may be driving down aspiration in certain communities, which warrants serious investigation. The often quoted statistic, that more people from poorer backgrounds are attending university under the new few regime masks important variations in participation such as the 40% decline in part-time entrants. This evidence suggests there has also been a decline in participation in areas of the country that have been hit particularly hard in current economic climate.
"High quality regional universities, such as Alliance universities, with close links with business and strong employability outcomes for their graduates, play a crucial role in revitalising local economies and providing real opportunities for communities and individuals to prosper."
A Business Department spokeswoman said: "We want everyone with the desire and talent to be able to study at university, irrespective of their background. Last year the proportion of disadvantaged English 18-year-olds applying to university was at its highest level.
"Universities are already planning to spend over £700 million in 2017/18 on widening participation - an increase of well over £100m from 2012/13."